Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A prisoner prayer - for the New Year

Lord of the universe, as we end one year and begin another, we ask that you hear our pleas on behalf of those behind bars.

Prisoners will lose loved ones in the year to come.  Even though they will not be privileged to experience the physical closeness of friends and family in their time of grief, we pray that they may not only feel your presence, but also your comfort and your peace.

We know of your compassion for those whose minds were troubled.  We know how, in Bible times, evil spirits were ordered to depart from the bodies of the mentally challenged.  As we look to the new year, we ask you to do the same for those troubled souls behind bars who are not able to think clearly and respond correctly.  In addition, halt those inmates and staff members who would harm them or do further damage.  Instead, cloak their caregivers in a garment of compassion and concern.

Lord Jesus, may the women behind bars feel the same warmth and love that you showed to your dear mother, and friends Mary and Martha.  In 2016, we pray that the women in our prison may be granted their personal, private space in a facility where conditions now are seriously overcrowded.  May fellow inmates be tolerant of each other in these difficult times.  May staff members reach a new level of sensitivity and kindness.  May administrators climb to new heights to improve conditions for women in prison.  In the new year, may these women receive more than enough personal hygiene products, more than enough hot water, and may their lives be brightened by friendly caregivers and sparkling clean showers.

May elderly prisoners escape from the fear of personal attacks in prison next year.  Place a shield of protection around the sex offenders, the geriatric lifers, and the mentally challenged misfits.  Protect them from persecution and attack by predators and gang-bangers, but also from abusive guards and staff members.

You know that the vast majority, perhaps up to 90%, of inmates will not receive a visit this year.  May more kind people than ever before take a moment to visit a prisoner, and where there are no human visits, may your presence be felt in those lonely cells.

Your presence is needed in those cells, Lord.  As we begin the new year there are those whose families have either passed on or moved on, and are now alone.  There are those who can no longer be convinced that the courts are just, and can find no hope.  There are those who have done their best, who deserve to be released, who have served their time, and still cannot even generate any interest.  And then there are those who remain angry and troubled, who lash out at fellow inmates and staff, cause problems because they can, and have no qualms about hurting others.  Calm their minds and their souls.  Divert their plans to traffic in alcohol, drugs and sex.  Help them to see that there’s a better way than that of the gangs, and that there is no superior race. 

It’s not easy to be sick or injured in prison, and we ask that you remember those with medical and physical concerns today.  Where there is pain, grant relief when medication may be scarce or non-existent.  Where there is suffering, bless not only the inmate but also the caregivers.  In this new year, give all medical personnel in our prisons a generous measure of understanding and compassion.

There are many behind bars who love you, Lord.  They spend time thinking of you, speaking with you, and praising your name in worship.  Protect them from persecution and ridicule.  Wrap them in your everlasting arms.  Help them, also, to avoid ridiculing and condemning those whose beliefs are different.

And for those of us on the outside, give us the insight to see that placing young people in adult prisons, excessive sentences, death penalties, mass incarceration, and the use of solitary confinement do nothing to reduce crime, but instead make existing problems even worse.  We ask your specific new-year blessing not only on the prisoners, but also their families and loved ones, those entrusted to care for them, and those people and agencies advocating for them.

We close this prayer claiming your promises and believing that your miracles continue to occur, and can even take place in this dark and bleak environment.  In fact, we pray for them in the year to come.

Hear our prayer, O Lord!

Amen

Friday, December 25, 2015

In Santa's bag: Friends!

It’s always a pleasurable experience to develop a new friendship.  In our work, Matt and I quite often meet someone new who appreciates the work that we are doing, offers to help in some way, and becomes a new friend, not only to HFP, but to us, personally.

Sitting at my desk in the quiet of Christmas morning, carols playing softly in the background, I’m thankful for all my friends.  But my heart is filled with gratitude on Christmas, 2015, for my friends behind bars---especially those whom I hadn’t yet met just one year ago.  As we reviewed our contact records for the year, we discovered that we added at least one new person to our list of friends every day, 7 days a week.  By December 31, I will have added the names of more than 365 persons behind bars to my list of friends.  And these aren’t merely acquaintances…these are friends!

For example, Matt and I received an unprecedented number of Christmas cards in the mail from prisoners this year, and many, many more ecards and greetings via email.  And the comments in the cards went something like this:

Wanting to send a very warm and sincere Christmas wish to you and all those who seek truth and honesty for those of us incarcerated.

Thanks for everything!  You all are a blessing more than you know.

Just wanted to say I appreciate all that you do for us.  Thank you, my brothers!

I am very, very thankful for all that you do for Michigan prisoners.

It’s also fair to say that not everyone behind bars considers us a friend.  Frustration and anger can get in the way of friendship when we’re not able to get the desired results on behalf of a needy inmate.  Sometimes the best thing we can do, in this business, is simply hold the prisoner’s hand.  We can’t right an injustice, we can’t change the mind and practices of an obstinate healthcare staffer, we can’t convince a stubborn Parole Board that many of these people would be productive citizens outside of prison.  Sometimes the only thing we can do for the unhappy and unsatisfied prisoner is offer a prayer.  God may seem to hold the only key to solve their problems.

Am I thankful that there are prisoners?  No!  Am I thankful that these people are in prison?  Certainly not!  Am I thankful for the friendship of so many inmates?  You bet!

Their friendship is an unparalleled, unmatchable gift!

Join me in a prayer, on this Christmas day, remembering all who are incarcerated.  This is a lonely day for them.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Christmas Spirit, as told by Channel 8

The producers of Channel 8 News had no idea they were giving me a lesson on the Spirit of Christmas.  But that’s exactly what happened late yesterday.

It had been a hectic and heartbreaking day at the HFP desk:  stories of wrongful conviction, shabby and callous treatment by the Parole Board, an inmate struggling with mental illness, another dealing with an embarrassing physical ailment that prevents him from even wanting to leave his cell.  As you know, this week we have been publicizing the plight of women in Michigan’s prison facility, where overcrowded conditions are making life miserable. 

Back to the 6 o’clock news.

Much of the news was dominated by presidential candidate Donald Trump, doing the thing he seems to do best:  bad-mouthing Mexicans, immigrants, women…anybody who doesn’t look like him or think like him.  And that started my thought processes in this Christmas week.  There are many people who, I’m sure, claim that they follow this Christ Child, and yet who think it’s all right to speak that way about other people.  I’m particularly sensitive to this issue, because many people speak of prisoners the same way.  After reading my blog on the subject of women’s prison overcrowding, for example, one fine citizen, cloaked in anonymity, found it important to issue this public comment:  Are you kidding me?  They are prisoners, not tenants.  If they don’t like the circumstances then tell them not to make the reservations.  They are prisoners, plain and simple.  Who cares…?

The Trump story was enough to make me mutter, “Bah.  Humbug!”

Then later in the newscast, another story…a story of compassion and forgiveness, unlike many you will ever hear in any news report.  Last August, a guy was driving down the highway blithely eating a sandwich and looking at his GPS screen when he looked up to see that traffic had come to a stop.  He hit the brakes too late, and in the ensuing crash, 13 year old David Talsma was killed.  Now, in the week of Christmas, 40 year old Travis Fox is a convicted criminal.  His life will never be the same.  But in the courtroom, he found forgiveness!  David’s parents forgave the man.  It was something they had to do.  As followers of the Baby Jesus they had no choice.  The father of the victim put his arms around the accused driver, and both grown men wept.

That, I thought, gives me a better picture of the Christmas spirit.

The ministry of the baby Jesus didn’t actually begin until 30 years after his birth…and then it lasted only 3 years.  But during that brief period, Jesus got called many of the same kind of names that people are using today to talk about Mexicans, immigrants, blacks, women, Muslims and yes, prisoners.  And the religious leaders of the day, not the criminals, put him to death!

In one of Jesus’ sermons, Dr. Luke tells us in Chapter 4:  …the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 

A former broadcast newsman, I often shout at and criticize television newscasts these days.  Yesterday was different.

As we observe his birthday, I’m hoping we’ll take a moment to stop the name-calling and reflect on the life of that itinerant preacher who forever changed the world.   



Friday, December 18, 2015

I'm just plain disappointed!

You’d think a veteran worker in this field, with a journalism background, would have learned by now.  Yet, I stubbornly remain an optimist.  And that’s why I was so disappointed this week.

Matt and I have been dealing with problems related to overcrowded conditions at the one and only Michigan prison for women, Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility (WHV), in Ypsilanti, for weeks.  Nay, months.  I even drove to Lansing for a personal meeting with the new Director of the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Finally, a ray of shining light this week!  Paul Egan, fine writer for the Detroit Free Press, agreed that the overcrowded conditions and a resulting 21-hour-a-day restriction to prison cells were worthy of a story.  Perhaps, just perhaps, now the MDOC will respond, administrators at the facility might consider adjustment, attorneys might consider class action, Michigan voters might consider contacting their elected officials and demand change.

Alas, none of the above.

Word from the front office:  Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington denies there is an overcrowding problem.

Word from the prison:  I spoke with the Warden yesterday, and he told me that we were going to “pay” for the story in the Free Press.

Word from a prominent civil rights attorney:  It is extremely hard to litigate overcrowding cases because just because you have double the number of inmates that the facility was built for does not get you even close to winning a case.  You need high level of violence; poor food; poor medical care; poor environmental conditions; etc.  It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to litigate such cases. You likely will have better luck seeking to make changes in the manner you are.

Response from Michigan voters to our email notice of the Free Press Story, and a subsequent blog on the HFP internet blog site:  Underwhelming!

Why, why, did I expect more?  I really know better.  This isn’t my first rodeo.  It goes way back to the days when I first started trying to help Maurice Carter in 1995.  I tried to explain to my friends in positions of influence that I was trying to help an indigent black man who claimed wrongful conviction. I needed their help. A moment of silence, then a shake of the hand.  “Good for you, Doug.  We need people like you!”  And no further assistance.

Let’s face it, this is the Christmas season…time for happiness, fun and joy.  It’s no time to be thinking about the terribly unpleasant plight of 2,200 women behind bars.

Except for here in the HFP office.  The plight of these women remains at the forefront of our thinking.  It remains a priority!  I’ll go one step farther.  I’ll remain the optimist.  I not only believe that God is still on his throne, I believe we are on the right track and Jesus is on our side.  I believe the state is treating these women poorly.  I believe that someday, someone in authority is going to see the light.  I believe that good will prevail.  Someday.

It’s certainly not happening at the moment.

Merry Christmas!



Thursday, December 17, 2015

Scrooge pays a visit to women in prison!

Women in the Michigan prison system received a piece of coal in their Christmas stocking this year.  A new policy, enacted just before the Christmas holiday limits their time in the Day Room to three hours per day.  What this means, in effect, is that inmates are then confined to their cells or perhaps the yard for the rest of the day.

The Michigan Department of Corrections claimed, in an interview with Paul Egan of the Detroit Free Press, that the action was taken because of intense competition for Day Room space, even coming down to near-criminal activity.  I’m not saying that kind of stuff doesn’t or didn’t happen…after all, this is prison.  But here we see two typical MDOC responses:  1), place the blame somewhere other than on the real problem, which is very obviously overcrowding; and 2), over-react by penalizing everyone. 

I hope you read Mr. Egan’s article in the FREEP this morning, and we hope you’ll respond by forwarding the piece to the Governor and to your state legislators.

But let me add a few things to the article that were not included...notes that we picked up in our office from the many, many complaints we have received.

The grooming area is in the Day Room.  Why is it important to mention this?  Because for many, if the three-hour assignment comes at the wrong time of the day, the inmates will not be able to get adequately groomed in preparation for visits.  For men this may not be all that important, but for women it is, for very obvious reasons.

Overcrowding affects the Day Room, too!  One woman writes to us:  “200 plus women are being forced to share a day room area with no TV and only 42 chairs.”

Going outdoors isn’t all that simple, either.  Words of another prisoner:  “Warden says we can go outside, but days on end yard closes and opens late, or not at all, due to bad weather, chow lines running over, etc, which causes us to be in our cells 21 hours daily---with 1 desk, 1 chair, having to sit, write, type, do hobby-craft, eat and sleep on my bunk.”

And there’s one more factor that everyone seems to be avoiding:  Inmates are being told that this is in retaliation for their whistle-blowing about overcrowded conditions!  “ Officers tell us we asked for this by complaining. All we've been doing is asking for humane living conditions!!!

And

Ya’ll are the ones who want to write to newspapers and news stations telling them s**t!

Yet, the MDOC refuses to admit this is an overcrowding problem.  In a November 22 article in the Freep:    Still, when newly appointed Corrections Department Director Heidi Washington was questioned about Huron Valley when she appeared recently before a House committee, she said: "I wouldn't characterize it as being overcrowded."

And,

…state Corrections Department officials deny they have a serious overcrowding problem on their hands.

There are approximately 2,300 women in the Michigan prison system, most of them with family and friends in Michigan.  And most of these family members and loved ones are registered voters.  If the MDOC won’t listen and respond, it’s time to go to elected officials, right on up to the Governor. 

Let your voices be heard.


Friday, December 11, 2015

Dirk was right!

Many people aren’t all that interested in making life a little better for prisoners.  It goes back to the old saying, “If they hadn’t done the crime they wouldn’t be doing the time.”  

Video producer Dirk Wierenga quickly made that discovery, as he started doing interviews for a new HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS documentary.  A theme on improving the lot of prisoners was not going to work.  If his video production was going to help us raise money, it would have to change direction.  As he adjusted the focus of the documentary, Wierenga took the approach that 90% of these prisoners are going to return to society someday.  They’re going to move into our neighborhoods, work in our businesses, and attend our churches.  If they come out with a positive attitude, having been treated with compassion while behind bars, 1) there’ll be less chance of re-offending;  2) there’ll be a strong chance that they’ll be good neighbors;  and 3), chances are they’ll want to give back to society.

I’m convinced Dirk is right on both issues.  I’ll give some examples in just a second here as to how prisoners, even before they get out, want to give back.  And I’m hoping that, when  people see and hear our story through the video, they’ll get it…they’ll see that it’s just plain common sense to treat prisoners fairly and with compassion.

Here are examples of how inmates are going far out of their way just to give back to society, even before they return to the streets.

We have boxes of warm kids hats, mittens and scarves, made by the women at Huron Valley to be sold in a charity store as a fund-raiser for HFP.

We have beautiful prayer shawls, knitted by the women, for our Prayer Shawl Ministry, where we send a shawl to the hurting loved one of a prisoner.

The men at one Michigan prison are knitting and crocheting items at an incredible rate for a homeless veterans’ shelter in Northern Michigan.

One of our friends makes hundreds of teddy bears in an atmosphere almost like a small factory, to be supplied to the Graham Crusade and other worthy causes.

The men at Brooks CF in Muskegon knit warm head-wear for needy kids in a program called Kaps for Kids.

A group of inmates has asked HFP to help in getting patterns for sleeping bags and mats from an Ohio prison, because they want to make these items for homeless people in Michigan.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  There are programs like these throughout the Michigan prison system.  Granted, there are gang-bangers.  Granted, some inmates are preying on the elderly and those convicted of sex crimes.  Granted, some are still pushing guards down the stairs, or selling booze and drugs, or running their con games.  But many want to change, and give back.

That’s why we say it’s important to treat them with kindness now.  We want to develop an attitude that will carry through into the free world.

That’s what the new video---to a better life---is trying to convey.

Dirk was right.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Christmas gift from behind bars

The question came up again just the other day:  With all the negative stuff that you guys deal with on a daily basis, how do you maintain a positive attitude?

Let me answer that right this second, because I’ve just opened the mail that arrived in our Post Office box today.

Seems our friend Roger, an occupant of the Muskegon Correctional Facility, shared the news with his bunkie that he was about to put together a little home-made Christmas card to Matt, me, and Father Jared Cramer (our unofficial chaplain who also serves on our Board of Directors).  His friend said that he wanted to sign the card, too.  And the word spread.  Other guys wanted to sign the card.  And they wanted to add messages.  Page after page of the tiny sheets got glued together.  I ripped open the envelope today, to find these electric-printer-generated words on the face of a pasted-together card:  Doug, Matt, Jared, and HFP Staff.

Here’s a sample of some of the messages attached to the holiday greetings:

Thank you for all you do for us!

Our prayers are with you today and always!

Thank you for all of your purpose-and-activated vision!

Thank you for all your hard work in helping us not be thrown away and forgotten.

There are not enough words that can express our appreciation for you.  You look beyond where we are to help us and uplift us…you make the world a better place.

Thank you for being a pillar of grace to the incarcerated.

Thank you for all you have done, from all the people you’ve done it for!

Every message was hand-written and signed.  I added them up:  28 signatures!  28 guys behind bars who took a moment to say “Thank you” to the HFP team. 

We won’t receive a more meaningful Christmas gift this year!

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Hurting for the "little guy"

In my years of radio broadcasting, a listener finally wrote a letter to the radio station wondering just who was that “little guy” that I kept fighting for?  I never kept it a secret that, as an editorial writer, I was going to flex my muscles on the airwaves for the “little guy.”

That is still my passion.

On this day before Thanksgiving, I’m sitting here trying to fashion a prayer to be recited by our extended family before dinner tomorrow.  I’m using the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson as a template.

As I try to concentrate, my mind keeps wandering to issues that I find troubling at Thanksgiving time, 2015:  terrorist attacks, nations fighting with nations, shootings by those who are supposed to be protecting us, hateful comments toward people of a religion different than my own.  Sad.

But once again, the problem of the “little guy” takes precedence.

Years ago I took up the cause of a prisoner who was NOT wrongly convicted.  And here’s why.

He had first-hand knowledge of a murder…another prisoner had openly boasted about committing the crime.  This inmate is a Christian, and felt that it was his duty to report this to authorities.  He didn’t ask for anything in return.  He wasn’t trying to get a lesser sentence.  He wasn’t hoping for a transfer to a less secure prison.  He was simply doing what his conscience told him to do.

But the state improved on that.  Thanks to discussions by his attorney and with the Prosecutor of that county, my friend was promised that if he testified in court, and if that testimony was effective, they would do their part to get him re-sentenced.  That would be huge, because it would eventually mean freedom for him. 

And so he testified.  The testimony worked!  The state got a conviction on first degree murder.
 
What happened to my friend?  Did he get re-sentenced?  Is he a productive citizen in a free society now?  Don’t make me laugh.

He’s still in prison.  The guarantees of anonymity were hollow. He constantly fears for his life, despised by both guards and inmates.  There are rumors of contracts on his life.  Last year someone tried to poison him.

What about the offer by the state?  Well, they’ve re-thunk it.  They got what they wanted, and after all, this guy is just a prisoner, right?

Thanks to HFP, one of the state’s leading criminal defense attorneys has come to this man’s assistance.  We appealed to the Governor for a commutation of sentence based on all this prisoner has done, because he has helped the state numerous times since then.  The Assistant Prosecutor who originally put him away wrote a three-page letter of support! 

Did the Governor listen?  Nope.

Two days before Thanksgiving, 2015, he received a letter of rejection in the mail.

Happy Thanksgiving!

As I’m writing tomorrow’s prayer for my beautiful family, I’m hurting for the “little guy.” 

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

A broken heart for Thanksgiving

Mr. H just received a rotten Thanksgiving present:  He must spend 5 more years in prison.  He has already served 47 years.

I first met him just a year ago.  His prison warden, who has a heart for the down-trodden, personally asked me if there was some way that HFP could help this man in obtaining a release.

For the sake of background, Mr. H is 74 years of age.  The warden claims that he actually died three different times in her prison, only to be revived again.  He’s had 5-bypass heart surgery.  He has serious leg problems that give him constant pain, and keep him in a wheelchair. His health is a mess.

I wouldn’t dare publish his name because of the severity of the crime.  Those in his community who remember it would say he deserves to remain behind bars, and deserves every bit of the accompanying pain and discomfort that he lives with on a daily basis. 

On the other hand, I listened to the warden, was given a private meeting with him, and on her recommendation decided that we should try to help.  Lifers like Mr. H get to appear before the Parole Board once every 5 years, and his turn came up in August.  His crime was so heinous that all family and friends have long abandoned him, so I offered to be at his side for the interview.  It was a disaster.

Never mind that Mr. H had committed the crime while high on alcohol and drugs and cannot remember what happened.  The Parole Board member insisted that he give her specific details as to what happened in 1968.  As an alcoholic, he had experienced a typical blackout.  He couldn’t give her the information she wanted, and that infuriated this state employee.  He could have lied and made up a story, but he chose to tell the truth, and that wasn’t acceptable. 

Because of that, she paid little attention to the fact that he hasn’t had a misconduct in 25 years, that he went on to get his GED, then a tool and die maker certificate, then a paralegal degree.  It made no difference to her that this alcoholic hasn’t touched a drop during his entire imprisonment, even though homemade booze is always available.  His remorse and regret result in uncontrollable sobbing at times...and it happened again during the interview.  It’s no secret that he changed his life and became a man of sincere faith, believing that because the Lord had saved his life he must do good things in return.  So as a paralegal, he’s helping one prisoner after another with free assistance, and doing it with a glad heart.

Nope, none of that made any difference to this veteran member of the Michigan Parole Board.  She just handed him a flop---prison terminology for a continuation.  He got the word a few days ago.

Not only will he remain in prison for the next five years, the state will wind up paying double or triple the cost for this man’s care, because of his severe health problems.  And it didn’t have to be that way.  Mr. H would have been a productive member of society.

Does anyone wonder why Michigan’s prison population is so high?

Said the former warden, who felt he should have been released:  “This is just awful!” 


           

            

Thursday, November 19, 2015

When thanks changed my attitude

I was about to write a “poor me” blog today.  In fact, I had it half finished.  It’s not really my nature to be that negative, but when things start to go south I have to catch myself.

I was finding plenty of justification:

            Money is not coming in
            A recent speech about HFP seemed to fall flat
            A prison warden just censored email messages to two inmates.

HFP survives on contributions and gifts.  When we slip $10,000 behind budget by this time of the month we have some concerns.  Would we have to go back to some pay-less paydays?

I’m used to varied reactions to my speeches about HFP, but I never get used to the fact that some people are just not all this passionate about helping prisoners.  In my mind I quietly wonder how they’d feel if it was their son or daughter, mentally ill, being abused by staff members not properly trained for this kind of care.  I wonder how they’d feel if a handicapped member of their family was getting teased and ignored, rather than receiving compassionate concern and assistance.  While they listened politely, an all-white, middle-income audience recently expressed little response after I was finished.  That always leaves me discouraged.

And we thought we had just about gotten on top of the whole problem of censored email messages.  There was fault on both sides, and after a productive meeting at corrections headquarters we patched it up and agreed to move ahead.  But today, two messages rejected…messages that had been sent weeks ago, never arriving at their destination.  The two messages went to the same facility, where the warden is believed to have an attitude about HFP.  That type of harassment saddens me.  It would be one thing if we were trying to violate rules, or smuggle in contraband, or stir up revolutionary thoughts.  But in this case we were trying to help with arts and crafts, and with a commutation application.  We get censored when we’re trying to do good?   Phttttt!

But then my thought processes were balanced out by two beautiful women.

One was a member of that audience that I just made reference to…I had noticed that she was smiling and nodding.  She rushed up to me at the conclusion of my presentation, and asked:  “May I give you a hug?”  She quickly explained that she had had a brother who served time in a Michigan prison.  “Yours is the work of God,” she exclaimed.

And the second is a new friend from Australia, who recently paid a visit to the states and with whom I recently visited.  She claimed her friend was wrongly convicted, and had nowhere to turn.  I met her over coffee, agreed that it was a compelling case, and put her in touch with the director of an Innocence Project.  That turned out to be a successful meeting, and both this woman and the prisoner now have hope.

Said she, in an email message:  “If only there were more people like this (HFP), who go out of their way to help prisoners in need, give them a voice on the outside when no one else is willing to listen, show them compassion and give them hope.”

I was the one who needed the pickup today, and it came from these two unlikely sources.  I owe them my thanks.

The money is still a concern, but God has never failed yet.  I fall back on the words of this favorite hymn:  …All I have needed thy hand hath provided.  Great is thy faithfulness!



Wednesday, November 11, 2015

At 79, right where I belong!

Elliot and Douger have something in common.

We’ve been reading and hearing a lot about Elliot Uzelac these days.  He’s the fine American football coach, with a history in the pros and in college football, who at the age of 74 decided to serve as head coach at Benton Harbor High School.

For those who aren’t familiar with the story, the high school is located in a community fraught with problems, and all of those problems were reflected in the history of the local high school football team.  Prior to this season, the team had won only 4 games in 8 years! 

Uzelac had a successful and productive career as a football coach.  But he couldn’t resist this challenge.  Within days after assuming his new position, things began to turn around.  And after the last game was played, the team was able to boast about its first winning season in 25 years!  The team even went on to win its first game ever in the playoffs! 

There’s a much bigger story here.  The kids learned a lot more than how to win football games.  They learned that regardless of skin color, there are people who care.  Thanks to the coach and his wife, who took it on herself to see that these hungry players in a low-income community received good meals, self-esteem has risen to the surface for the first time in decades.  And it extends far beyond the team…it radiates all through this battered and abused community.  Hope and pride now fill a huge gap that was prevalent in Benton Harbor, Michigan.

Here’s my take on all this.  All his years of coaching at the college and professional level were simply God’s way of preparing him to take on this challenge:  serving the downtrodden.  His last career, the one at age 74, is the one with real meaning.

Said Elliot:  Kids are worth it!

I’m thinking about all of this on the morning of my 79th birthday.

My two earlier careers were not nearly as noteworthy as those of Coach Uzelac.  But I loved both of them.  I began my career in radio as a part-time announcer, disc jockey and newsman, in 1954.  I ended it as a radio station owner in 1983.  Throughout my broadcasting career, I tried to focus on small market excellence, especially in radio journalism, and focused on helping, what I called, “the little guy.”  There were awards.  Local. State. National.  That plus a buck will get you a senior coffee.

After that I served a fine local dealership as a church organ sales representative.  As an active church musician it was an extension of something I love, and I was proud to have been involved in improving and enhancing the music programs and worship services of more than 200 churches over a 21-year period.  At our peak, our little dealership reached national recognition as the dealer of the year.  Worth another senior coffee.

But as I reflect on it, as in Elliot’s case, this was God’s way of preparing me for my third, final, and most important career:  extending a cup of cool water in the name of Jesus to prisoners:  serving the downtrodden.  This is the one with real meaning.

Says Douger:  Prisoners are worth it!

Elliot and Douger.  Right where God put them.



Saturday, November 7, 2015

Little things mean a lot!

The year was 1954…one of the most exciting times in my life.  I had my first legitimate radio job:  weekend disc jockey and announcer for WMUS, in Muskegon! 

In those days, a disc jockey was really a disc jockey.  For the most part, I was spinning 78 RPM records on the two turntables.  And one of those records was a new hit by pop singer Kitty Kallen:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT.

The job led to a thrilling and rewarding career in radio broadcasting that spanned nearly 30 years.  In 1983, radio was finished, and a new life selling church organs began.  21 years later, this old man began still a third new career:  showing compassion to prisoners.  It’s important to note here that while jobs changed, the lyrics to the old popular song held true, and perhaps have more meaning now than ever before!

The song lyrics popped into my head this morning as I was reflecting on the number of prisoners who are just begging for Matt and me to get to know them.  The underlying message is simply this:  “Once you get to know me, you’ll find I’m OK…you’ll like me!”

Just this week a prisoner who has been leaning hard on me to write a letter of support to the Parole Board took the next step, and urged me to call his family members to confirm that he’s a nice man and deserving of my support. 

Another inmate dropped a note yesterday asking if I had abandoned him.  He said that everyone else had, but he was clinging to our friendship.  Why wasn’t he hearing from me?

Two days ago an old friend, an elderly black man who has been wrongly convicted, called me on the phone to say that it appears that everyone has forgotten him.  He had the strong backing of an international innocence project, when they suddenly dropped his case.  Then a private US innocence project took him on, and now he hears nothing.  We appear to be among the few who actually believe in him.  He’s heart-broken.

Message after message comes to the HFP office, pleading with us to figuratively hold their hands, give them a kind word, show a hint of friendship.  That brings me back to Kitty Kallen’s popular song of 1954:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT.Look at these lyrics:

Give me a hand when I've lost the way
Give me your shoulder to cry on
Whether the day is bright or gray
Give me your heart to rely on
Send me the warmth of a secret smile
To show me you haven't forgot
That always and ever, that now and forever
Little things mean a lot.

I don’t think Jesus meant that all of his followers had to drop everything and go into full-time prison ministry, in his message of Matthew 25.  I think his message was:  LITTLE THINGS MEAN A LOT!

Matt and I must never forget this.

Neither should you.



Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Some days it's not much fun in this office!

We promise to try to help any Michigan prisoner dealing with an in-prison problem.  If we can.  And that’s a big “if.”  Today Matt and I haven’t been much help.

A prisoner tells us by email that a car ran over him before he went to prison.  Says the inmate:  I haven't gotten any therapy or anything, they just gave me a booklet of things I should do. I got a limp, my ankles hurt, and swell up. They won't give me a shoe detail or anything. I've ask them to give me some shoes but they deny me for everything.  We checked with one of our doctors regarding the injury.  Nothing more that can or should be done.  We checked with a former MDOC official regarding the procedure:  Shoes aren’t all that great.  He should carefully read that booklet.

Another inmate tells us about the transfer of prisoners from an Upper Peninsula facility that was recently closed, to a recently re-opened unit just down the street.  There is fiberglass insulation shoved in the ventilation, the toilets are constantly flooding, there aren't any shelves in the lockers, they have household size washer n dryer for 160 people, they are violating fire codes in the chow hall in regards the maximum occupancy, there are carpets in the rooms with no vacuum cleaners, there was a unit that went 3 days without hot water, visiting room only holds 16 people, the vents in the bathroom leak on you when you are using the toilet.  Our best resource is a former MDOC official.  Her response:  “I know when they open a new place there are problems like these.  …The issues you get are the draining ones for everyone…if they care.”

A prisoner has an urgent legal matter and is willing to pay an attorney to help.  He claims that he and his family have spent $350,000 on lawyers and court costs so far, but he’s still behind bars.  He claims that he has one avenue of appeal left.  Turns out he doesn’t.  Says one of the state’s leading legal experts on appeals:  “Mr. Sanders wants a second bite of the 6.500 apple, but he only gets one.  The only exceptions are when ‘a retroactive change in law occurred after the first motion from relief from judgment or a claim of new evidence that was not discovered before the first such motion.’  Michigan Court Rule (MCR) 6.502(G)(2).  He can't meet that hurdle.  He is procedurally out of luck.”

And then the final sour blow of this day.  A distraught mother of a Michigan inmate called in tears.  Her son, who had served 18 years for his crime, was due to be released this morning.  He had served the minimum term of his sentence, he was a model prisoner and was in a Level One facility.  Yesterday he packed up his belongings, and he gave away all his personal hygiene products.  A friend was driving from Battle Creek way up to Marquette to pick him up.  At 5:30 PM yesterday a prison staff member apologized to him, saying he wasn’t going anywhere.  The Parole Board had miscalculated the time he should have served…he would have to stay for another 18 months!  The inmate’s driver was just about to Mackinaw City when she was called by the prison.  In tears, she turned her car around.  The elderly parents, in their 70s and in poor health, are devastated.  And we were unable to do any good.  We didn’t protest the miscalculation so much as the timing.  His mother asked Michigan Parole Board officials if they didn’t know about this before 5:30 yesterday afternoon.  She related this reply:  “They said they didn't, in fact they said they have released people before and went back and picked them up again!  Because they have people looking the records over for them.”  And people wonder why we’re clamoring for Parole Board reform!

On a day like today it feels like all we’re doing is spinning our wheels.  We don’t seem to be helping anyone.  The only answers we’re giving our friends behind bars are in the negative.  I’m sad when we just can’t give more encouragement.

But then there’s a little daylight.

From one inmate:  "I just talked to the counselor…he looked on his computer for me to see if I have a parole. Well, I do! I have a projected out date of December 8th.  Again, Doug, I thank you and Matt very much for all of your help, coming out for the Parole Board hearing, and especially your prayers. You are very much appreciated."

And from a little church in a small Michigan community where Matt and I recently made a presentation came this message today:  “I am connecting you with the Chair of our Church and Society Committee.  Her committee has decided to support Humanity for Prisoners with a donation.” God us good!

Another day in the HFP office. 

Sunday, October 25, 2015

On MAURICE HENRY CARTER DAY, the key word is “frustration!”

That single word perhaps best summarizes our battle to obtain Maurice’s freedom.

Here are some things that topped our frustration list.

His defense attorney
The prosecutor
The judge
The judicial system in general
The community
The public
The Parole Board
The Governor
The prison staff
Prison medical care, or lack thereof
The slowness of speed for the wheels of justice.  (Quoting Maurice:  When my case came along, the wheels of justice ground to a halt!).

My involvement began after he had already served nearly 20 years.  Convinced that I could make a difference, and in a hurry, I soon learned otherwise.  Here’s just a short list of additional things that frustrated me.

The lack of interest
The lack of support
The generally negative feeling toward prisoners, even, and perhaps especially, among Christians
The reaction of many of my own friends (I wish Doug would quit saying the man is innocent!)
The common perception that all prisoners say they’re not guilty
The common perception that “if they hadn’t done the crime they wouldn’t be doing the time.”

Through all of this, however, we formed the organization now known as HUMANITY FOR PRISONERS, with a full-time staff of two and a list of volunteers in a variety of professions that now numbers 50.  Together Matt and I respond to 150 to 200 contacts a month from Michigan prisoners, hoping to show some concern, some humanity, some compassion, to those behind bars…and averaging one new prisoner a day!

And guest what!  We have exactly the same frustrations!  The list remains unchanged.

Despite all of the frustrations, Maurice Carter remained upbeat, optimistic, and forever kind and forgiving.  He’s our model.  So we continue our work in that same upbeat tempo, forever optimistic, and doing our best to be kind and compassionate to the “least of these” in the name of Jesus.

I love the story of the little girl on the seashore who was tossing stranded starfish back into the water as the tide was going out.  An older man watched for a few minutes, and then said:  “Little girl, don’t you know that this beach goes on for miles?  Millions of starfish are stuck on this sand.  You can’t possibly make a difference.”

The child was silent for a moment.  She walked over to a starfish, tossed it back into the ocean and said quietly, “Made a difference for that one!”

That’s the HFP story.

Touching lives.  One at a time.  Thanks to the vision of Maurice Carter.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

This is why I shed tears

I was sitting in the front row. 

Some 100 people had gathered in the meeting room of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing.  Michigan State University Drama Professor Lisa Biggs had put together a group of actors from the university, the church and the community, in order to present a stage reading of some excerpts from JUSTICE FOR MAURICE HENRY CARTER.  This is the powerful and moving drama, written by award-winning Toronto playwrights Donald Molnar and Alicia Payne, which tells the story of my friendship with Maurice.  For those few who may still not be aware of his plight, Maurice served 29 years in the Michigan prison system for a crime he did not commit. 

This was not the first time I had heard parts of the play.  Marcia and I were privileged to hear the first reading in a small room on the second floor of a Toronto theatre in 2008.  Since that time we have heard actors telling the Maurice Carter story in many venues.  Perhaps the most meaningful was a stage reading inside the prison walls of the Earnest C. Brooks Correctional Facility in Muskegon.  A group of thespians in an organization called Shakespeare Behind Bars worked for a year on the production before presenting it to a small audience, including Marcia, me, some of our Board members and some special friends.

Sorry I’m getting so wordy here, but I just wanted to explain that the East Lansing experience last Sunday wasn’t my first rodeo.

It was near the conclusion when something most unexpected occurred:  I started weeping.  I was listening to the lines about Maurice Carter eventually being freed on a compassionate release because he was terminally ill.  He was enjoying his freedom.  He met his mother outside of prison for the first time in nearly 30 years.  He was savoring the taste of a real hamburger, prepared on an open grille.  I didn’t realize the tears were flowing until I touched my face.  My cheeks were wet.  What the…!!!  I’d heard these lines many times before.  What was the big deal?

And I’ve been thinking about it since then.

I’m deciding that it wasn’t just the memory of that glorious day, that wondrous event.  It wasn’t just the fine presentation by this group of non-professional actors.  It was the bigger picture that was getting to me.  You see, since that day I’ve been working with prisoners around the clock, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  I’ve discovered that my previous two occupations were merely preparation by God for this calling. 

These are the things that make me weep:

Wrongful convictions are still a ho-hum way of life in our country, unless you happen to be the victim, or the family member of the victim, or the loved one of the victim.

It is still no easier to overturn a wrongful conviction!  Witness the huge case backlogs of every Innocence Project in the United States.

The factors that placed Maurice Carter behind bars are still high on the list of WC causes:  jail-house snitches, faulty eye-witness testimony, tunnel-vision police work and prosecutorial misconduct.

There is no let-up in the inhumane treatment of prisoners!  The lack of appropriate medical care that led to the death of Maurice is still evident in every prison system. 

It is still far too easy to get in, and far too difficult to get out!  Prosecutors continue to refuse re-opening old cases.  Judges continue to reject legitimate appeals.  Parole Boards continue to demand confessions and demonstrations of remorse, and inmates refuse to meet those demands because they’re not guilty.

The list goes on and on.

It makes me weep, and I think it makes Jesus weep.

It should make you weep, also.